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June 30, 2014

Why is no one offering same-day ADA paratransit service?

by Joe Zavisca - Also by this author

In a recent review of the websites of transit authorities in major cities, I was struck by the fact that seemingly everyone still requires day-before reservations for their ADA complementary paratransit service. Why is that?

Certainly, the technology and dispatching capabilities are available for transit agencies to provide same-day, virtually immediate service. Taxi providers are built on the concept of immediate service, and their livelihoods are built on the principle of immediate response.

From a customer service standpoint, the convenience and immediacy of same-day service would be a huge improvement. And from an operating standpoint, it offers the opportunity to increase productivity by filling holes in schedules left by cancellations and no-shows.

So why aren’t ADA and other paratransit providers offering the same degree and quality of service to their customers that taxi companies do? There are, of course, two obvious, knee-jerk answers, neither of which is satisfactory, or even acceptable. The first is that it would increase costs, and the second is that “we’ve never done it before.”

RELATED: Why curb-to-curb service is simply not enough

As to why it has never been done before, there may once have been operational reasons why it was impractical, but no longer. Other than the need to overcome inertia, there is another hurdle, which is the psychological history of ADA transportation. That psychology has always been one of restricting demand whenever possible, rather than encouraging demand.  

The rationale (or rationalization) for that psychology has always been cost. Would same-day service increase the overall costs of paratransit service in a given location? Probably. But would it have a significant impact on a transit authority’s overall costs? Probably not. In nearly all agencies, ADA paratransit represents a single-digit percentage of overall costs. And while the cost per trip is higher than on other modes, even a modest increase in this small segment of expenses will not have a large negative effect on the total costs of an agency.

RELATED: Partnerships, Subsidies Help Curb Paratransit Costs

Additionally, there is the matter of what was called in the original ADA regulations “capacity constraints.” This term was used to prohibit “any operational pattern or practice that significantly limits the availability of service [to] ADA paratransit eligible persons.” (49 CFR 37, Appendix D, Part 131, page 484) Originally, capacity constraints targeted practices like the creation of waiting lists or limiting the number of trips an individual could take in one day. But isn’t requiring advance reservations just another way to restrict access to the service?

While the ADA regulations on capacity constraints specifically address ADA complementary paratransit, there is no reason same-day service couldn’t also be implemented in other forms of paratransit. For example, the PennDOT Senior Shared-Ride and Persons with Disabilities Programs come to mind. When the Senior Shared-Ride program was implemented in the 1980’s, same-day service was legislatively prohibited on the logic that it would unfairly compete with private taxi companies. But since taxi companies often participate in public paratransit programs, and since few paratransit customers can afford regular taxi rates, it would seem that this kind of prohibition hurts both private businesses and customers.

“Disruptive innovation” is a term coined by the Harvard professor, Clayton M. Christensen. It has been overused in business circles, but could certainly be applied more frequently as a concept in public transportation. We certainly need more innovation, in paratransit more than in any other mode. And while it might be disruptive for agency managers, such innovations as same-day service will mightily benefit paratransit customers.

Two more questions also come to mind when thinking about this issue:
•    Are we serious about customer service, or not?
•    As my friend, Bob Schmitt, likes to say, “Are we in the business of providing people service, or denying people service?”

If the answers to those two questions are “Yes,” and “Providing people service,” then same-day paratransit should have happened a long time ago. At the very least, it should happen now.

In case you missed it...

Read our previous blog, "Testing whether Night Owl rail services can fly’"

Joe Zavisca


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  • Karl Henriksson[ June 30th, 2014 @ 10:26pm ]

    Welcome to Stockholm, Sweden. Book your paratransit ride 20 min before the next scheduled departure time - three departure times an hour in all non-rural parts of the county.

  • John Doherty[ July 1st, 2014 @ 2:01pm ]

    The assumption that no Paratransit Operator's provide same day servie would be inaccurate. By the way, say high to Bob Schmitt for me. John

  • Mike Houser[ July 2nd, 2014 @ 7:38am ]

    On-demand ADA service has been the standard of service delivery in Thousand Oaks for more than a decade.

  • Jim Watkins[ July 2nd, 2014 @ 8:18am ]

    There are areas of the country that do have same day reservations or call on demand, but not all. I also have a concern as you are comparing Taxi Service to Paratransit, Paratransit is a form of public transportation, while taxis are a for-hire service.

  • Tom Pirnstill[ July 2nd, 2014 @ 8:29am ]

    We are a rural dial-a-ride agency. We put that requirement in as a way for planning in case the customer needs to be transferred to another bus. Other than that, we always provide same day service.

  • Brett Farrell[ July 2nd, 2014 @ 8:33am ]

    Hi, the STM in montreal allows same day reservations (with over 9000 total trips a day) Regards Brett

  • Chris White[ July 2nd, 2014 @ 8:41am ]

    The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority has provided same-day service for people with disabilities and seniors for nearly 30 years. The majority of ADA trips are same-day. It does significantly increase demand. The use of taxis for amublatory riders has been an important element in making it work. Hi Joe, it's nice to see your picture.

  • Ken Hosen[ July 2nd, 2014 @ 8:50am ]

    For most transit systems ADA paratransit is the one mode where less riders are desirable (general public paratransit is a different story). These transit systems prefer placing more riders on fixed route; a far less expensive option. On a per trip basis ADA paratransit is the most expensive mode, far surpassing rail and fixed route service. It is also arguably the most difficult form of transit to operate. Understanding that ADA is a mainstreaming issue and that many persons with disabilities can ride fixed route, transit should offer encouragement, incentives and assistance in riding fixed route. Joe, when transit is assured that only those that need it use ADA paratransit, then perhaps we can go to same day service. After all it only takes seconds to schedule a trip, not 24 hours.

  • Ken Hosen[ July 2nd, 2014 @ 8:50am ]

    For most transit systems ADA paratransit is the one mode where less riders are desirable (general public paratransit is a different story). These transit systems prefer placing more riders on fixed route; a far less expensive option. On a per trip basis ADA paratransit is the most expensive mode, far surpassing rail and fixed route service. It is also arguably the most difficult form of transit to operate. Understanding that ADA is a mainstreaming issue and that many persons with disabilities can ride fixed route, transit should offer encouragement, incentives and assistance in riding fixed route. Joe, when transit is assured that only those that need it use ADA paratransit, then perhaps we can go to same day service. After all it only takes seconds to schedule a trip, not 24 hours.

  • Bob[ July 2nd, 2014 @ 1:46pm ]

    paratransit is an economic black hole and most do not conform to the rules as set up, "Paratransit is not intended to be a comprehensive system of transportation for persons with disabilities" preamble of 49CFR37 (Fed Reg vol 56 #173 pg 45601 as a person with a disability, and a transportation professional and who sat on the committee that wrote the ADA transportation regulations I can more than assure everyone tha paratransit is being overused and not as intended by the ADA! and if not brought under control it will sink some transit systems. already many systems spend over 10% of their funding to move less than 1% of their passengers, this is unsustainable

  • Jean Johnson[ July 3rd, 2014 @ 7:18am ]

    As a paratransit customer, I can say without reservation that same day service would be great! My husband and I are both customers, so within the county, paratransit is our main mode of transportation. Likewise, we rarely leave the county. In spite of one's best efforts, there are times when the need to go somewhere can't be foreseen a day or more in advance. I don't think it's necessary to give examples, but doubt that many drivers always know at least a day ahead of time all the places to which they might drive on another given day. Things come up, and when that happens, they just get in their cars and go. Cabs are very expensive, especially considering that many people in the disability community are on fixed incomes. Most recently, when I found myself needing an unforeseen ride, I used a ride share service, less expensive than a cab, but more costly than the paratransit service. I was very pleased to have that option, although I understand the cab companies aren't very happy that they are here. Because I am so dependent on it, I couldn't live in a city without a paratransit system, so I'm very glad to have it. I think that we, as customers, however, often feel that customer service really isn't a top priority with the company, as conveniences such as same day service just aren't there. For example, years ago, there was a service where the driver would wait 5 minutes if the customer had to drop a child off at day care, a dog at the groomer, get cash or change from the bank, drop off or pick up dry cleaning, Etc. but it no longer exists. The customer paid for each trip, but wasn't stuck waiting 30 minutes or more at a business where only 5 minutes or less had to be spent. While I wouldn't, and really couldn't live without a paratransit system, if customer service is really a priority, it seems that conveniences such as "wait 5 minutes", and same day service should be considered and, hopefully, implemented.

  • KEITH CHARLES EDWARDS[ July 3rd, 2014 @ 10:47am ]

    Good idea, but it cannot be helter-skelter.

  • tom[ July 3rd, 2014 @ 2:33pm ]

    Bob's comments and Jean's comments above provide the perfect juxtaposition of viewpoints on paratransit service. One sees it as the marginal service it was meant to be for those who could not use the fixed route system due to qualifying disability. He understands it's total cost and sees the need to keep it limited to only those who qualify under strict guidance, lest it eliminate local public transit altogether. The other, a user, wants personal taxi service but doesn't want to pay the going rate. She forgets that although it costs her much less, it still costs and someone else must pick up the tab. It's always seemed to me that we transit operators are our own worst enemies when it comes to paratransit because we don't educate all users of public transit about the true costs and how fares only cover a fraction. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, but we just don't want to admit it. So, it is no surprise when the users don't realize that either.

  • Bob[ July 10th, 2014 @ 7:51pm ]

    as an example the Montreal system with 9,000 trips a day times $37 dollars a trip times 250 days (weekdays) is over 80 million dollars a year. could make a lot of the subway system accessible for that. the reason folks need to ride the bus/subway/light rail and get off paratransit.

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Marcia Ferranto

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Marcia Ferranto is President/CEO of WTS International.


Scott Belcher

President and CEO, Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America)


Joe Zavisca

Joe Zavisca is an independent consultant specializing in paratransit service.


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